“I didn’t alter the balls in any way ... To me, those balls are perfect.”
Those two sentences were part of Tom Brady’s denial that he tampered with the footballs in Sunday’s Patriots-Colts tilt, after which the news broke that New England had used 11 underinflated footballs during its 45-7 romp over Indianapolis.
But thanks to culture’s ever-yawning need for comedy, and the ease with which people can engage punnery that would make groundlings of yore go wild, they also became a meeting point for yuksters to wink and nod at Brady’s blunders.
The Patriots quarterback’s quotes were taken out of context and repurposed with schoolboy glee by sites ranging from the tech clearinghouse Mashable to the tabloid kings at the New York Post, which tried to relive its “Headless Body In Topless Bar” glory days with a grinning headline that begged for Google News click-throughs. TMZ Sports gave some of his denials the remix treatment; a Seattle radio station ordered up an AC/DC-biting parody song even before the press conference that caused so many online writers to run for their Big Book of Dirty Third Grade Jokes.
To be fair, Brady — no stranger to the media spotlight — probably knew that silliness was inevitable. The five-letter word was often accompanied by a slight glimpse of his toothpaste-ad smile, perhaps implicitly mocking the media circus that had ensued after the NFL announced that the Patriots’ footballs hadn’t made their weight — hoopla only amplified by the fact that it was happening as a prelude to America’s biggest pseudo-event, the Super Bowl.
Compare Brady’s late-afternoon breeziness to the way his coach, Bill Belichick, handled his morning press conference on the matter. Belichick, in a statement that was at turns terse and extremely educational as far as getting a glimpse into his harder-faster style of coaching, very deliberately used the word “football” when he was referring to the game’s nucleus of play; there were a few times that he almost let the word slip in single-syllable form, but caught himself. (That he was standing in front of a promotional backdrop advertising a new Gillette razor called the “Flexball” only heightened the absurdity.)
It could be that the stakes were higher for Belichick. But the discrepancy in attitudes and willingness to let a controversy transmute into something else entirely — a joke — speaks to the way media are created and disseminated in an age where raw content is only slightly more plentiful than people hoping to score viral hits by making it funny to a wider audience, and how much patience people in the spotlight have for them.
The willingness to seize on blunders is hardly restricted to the sports world, or to online humorists. When Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs garbled cinematographer Dick Pope’s name during the Oscar nominations earlier this month, he briefly became more notorious than the films nominated for Best Picture. (“It doesn’t bother me in the slightest,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “But the poor president of the academy must feel terrible about making the slip-up. It was 5:30 in the morning.”) And John Travolta’s transformation of Idina Menzel’s name into “Adele Dazeem” at last year’s Academy Awards turned into fodder for David Letterman’s “Late Show” Top Ten List, not to mention Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight” monologue months after the fact.
Consider the context of today’s jokes. Obviously the Super Bowl is a big deal — there’s football to be played, new models of cars to be advertised, and outrageous James Spader-starring pulp to be flogged postgame. But the specific nature of the quibbling over what the Pats have been accused of doing is relatively arcane — math and physics are involved, and in this ever-crowded media landscape, explaining the mathematics isn’t always traffic gold. (Unless you get Joe Theismann involved.)
Better, then, to go for the easy joke, and what’s easier than some giggling that’s slightly salacious in nature?
Despite all the potty humor, though, there’s a weirdly conservative streak slashing through these sorts of memetic eruptions. In the 1990s, much was made of the idea of “political correctness” — a term that started as a descriptor of communist-socialist tensions in the 1940s, and which during that decade transmuted into a defense of being able to offend with impunity. The sort of language policing that happens by those media outlets that are ready to GIF and Vine any person who says something that can be taken out of context as “stupid” or unfortunately innuendo-laden has a chilling effect: “Watch what you say, or you’ll be the next butt of the joke.” What’s the defining aesthetic? Even for TV-based riffing, it’s things that work well on the quick-hit world that is the viral Internet: easy stereotyping, bathroom humor, puns that fit into particular hashtags. (It’s probably a cliché to bring up Mike Judge’s 2006 dystopia “Idiocracy” at times like this, but I was honestly surprised not to see a headline that referenced the most popular TV show of that film’s 500-years-in-the-future landscape — which also utilizes the much-joked-about noun, albeit in a much more chagrined manner.)
Maura Johnston can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @maura.